Long before she married Clark Gable, Carole Lombard co-starred with him in No Man of Her Own, a pre-Code romantic drama that's the major drawing card of Carole Lombard Collection I, a three-film box set showcasing a trio of early performances by the beloved Golden Age actress. Fast and Loose, which features one of Preston Sturges' first screenplays, and Man of the World, in which Lombard co-stars with first husband William Powell, round out this entertaining array of films that celebrate Lombard's apprenticeship and preview the major star she would soon become. Pleasing transfers and solid audio distinguish Kino's Blu-ray presentations of these vintage motion pictures that fans of Lombard and pre-Code Hollywood will certainly enjoy. Recommended.
Carole Lombard may be remembered for her all-too-brief storybook marriage to Clark Gable and tragic death in a 1942 plane crash at the tender age of 33, but she's forever revered for her versatile talent, classic beauty, and a madcap screwball persona that made her the undisputed queen of Golden Age comedy. Vivacious, warm, sincere, and often luminous, Lombard endures because she's real. Some of her films may be dated, but she remains contemporary and relatable. Even when she puts on airs, she's down to earth.
The three films included in this collection, which appears to be the first volume of a continuing Lombard series, showcase the star during her rise to prominence in the early 1930s. Don't expect the daffy Lombard of My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred here; that screwball heroine wouldn't emerge for a couple of more years. This Lombard specializes in drama. In Fast and Loose and No Man of Her Own, she plays modest working girls, while in Man of the World, she portrays a socialite. All three women are very different, yet each must navigate tricky romances and social minefields, and Lombard brings the same level of infectious charm and authenticity to each delightful performance. Though she's never billed above the title in any of these vintage films, her excellent work makes it easy to see why she quickly rose to mega-star status and became one of Hollywood's most beloved stars.
Fast and Loose (1930)
This uneven early talkie is more notable as the screen debut of Miriam Hopkins and for featuring one of the first film scripts written by future screwball master Preston Sturges than for Lombard's largely ornamental supporting performance. A zany society comedy about a dizzy heiress (Hopkins) who shucks her nerdy fiancé for an affair with a hunky auto mechanic (Charles Starrett) against the wishes of her stuffy, disapproving parents (Frank Morgan and Winifred Harris), Fast and Loose - despite some witty dialogue and incisive social commentary - loses steam in its second half and never quite realizes its potential.
The 21-year-old Lombard capably plays the working class love of Hopkins' frequently inebriated brother (Henry Wadsworth), but she's often overshadowed by her character's wisecracking roommate, portrayed by a young and bubbly Ilka Chase, who steals every scene in which she appears. Morgan hasn't yet honed the befuddled persona that would enliven so many future films, but he's always a joy to watch and certainly perks up the proceedings.
Sturges peppers his script (adapted from a mildly successful play) with his trademark barbs that skewer the upper class's close-minded snobbishness, while painting the society set as a group of flighty, self-indulgent boobs. Lombard and Starrett play the level-headed outsiders who try to reform their respective mates, and their calm, measured performances often seem bland in this wacky milieu.
Fast and Loose has some bright moments, but has trouble sustaining itself even for 70 minutes. It's a treat, though, to see Lombard at such a young age and recognize the potential that would eventually lead to showy parts in an array of classic Hollywood comedies and dramas. Rating: 3 stars
Man of the World (1931)
Clark Gable wasn't the only movie star Lombard married. Shortly after making Man of the World, she and leading man William Powell tied the knot, and though the union only lasted a scant two years, the two remained friends and even later co-starred in the classic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey. They fell in love on the set of Man of the World, a hackneyed yet stylish and affecting romantic drama that gives the young Lombard plenty of opportunities to shine.
Powell plays Michael Trevor, an American expatriate living in Paris who fled the U.S. after a noble act ruined his reputation. He now takes his revenge on society by blackmailing rich American tourists over their sexual indiscretions. His latest target is business magnate Harry Taylor (Guy Kibbee), but once Michael gets to know Harry's beautiful and charming niece, Mary Kendall (Lombard), he begins to regret his wicked ways. The two fall in love, but Michael's shady past and jealous old flame (Wynne Gibson) threaten their burgeoning relationship.
Lombard is lovely as the fresh-faced socialite who succumbs to Powell's debonair charms. The palpable chemistry between them fuels the leisurely paced film, which contains a literate, lyrical script by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who would pen Citizen Kane a decade later. The melancholy ending lends Man of the World some emotional resonance, and fine performances and assured direction by Richard Wallace help neutralize the cliches and make the film a satisfying diversion. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
No Man of Her Own (1932)
This is the flagship film in this inaugural Lombard collection, and its allure is irresistible. Gable and Lombard - seven years before they married - starring in their only film together. According to all reports, there was no romantic attraction between the two actors during shooting; Lombard was happily married to William Powell and Gable was busy cheating on his second wife with a host of other stars. Their chemistry, though, is undeniable, and it fuels this lightweight romance that coasts amiably along, but never rises to the heights we expect.
Based on a novel by future producer Val Lewton (Cat People) and a story by director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel), No Man of Her Own somewhat resembles Man of the World as it charts the exploits of dashing Big Apple cardsharp "Babe" Stewart (Gable), who meets pretty yet naive librarian Connie Randall (Lombard) after fleeing to a small town to dodge a rap. Babe marries Connie, who knows nothing of his past, after losing a coin toss, then tries to keep her in the dark about his true profession. Complications, of course, arise, then intensify when Babe decides to go straight.
No Man of Her Own is the raciest of these three pre-Code movies. Lombard and Gable each get their own shower scene and their intimate interactions crackle with raw desire. Director Wesley Ruggles doesn't supply much artistic flair, but coaxes relaxed, magnetic performances from his cast. Gable, who catapulted to superstardom just a year before, was an especially hot commodity at the time, and though the film is designed to showcase his macho charm and sex appeal, Lombard hardly plays second fiddle. She steals focus whenever she's on screen and files the kind of natural, captivating portrayal that would soon define her screen persona.
Instead of spotlighting the clash between the upper and lower classes (like Fast and Loose and Man of the World), No Man of Her Own depicts the moral differences between liberated, sophisticated big city dwellers and more conservative, simple small town folk. That striking dichotomy was surely more pronounced 88 years ago than it is today, but it's still a relevant topic and adds some welcome substance to an otherwise fluffy romantic drama.
In the end, though, it doesn't really matter what the plot of No Man of Her Own is, what themes it addresses, or even if it's any good. We watch this modest, unassuming, often mediocre film for just two reasons - Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Their legendary union was tragically cut short, but thankfully No Man of Her Own preserves a sliver of it and reminds us what a perfect couple these two Hollywood titans - however fleetingly - once made. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Carole Lombard Collection I arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a box set with three individual Blu-rays in separate standard cases. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio mono. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
All three films flaunt very pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers that belie their sources' antiquated nature. Yes, there's print damage, but the faint scratches and speckling almost never overwhelm the picture, and only a few rough edits, moments of image instability, and missing frames crop up. Evident grain maintains the feel of celluloid (the grain is heaviest on No Man of Her Own, but its consistency keeps it from becoming a distraction), and excellent clarity, contrast, and grayscale lend the three films a rich, well-balanced look. Lush black levels across the board anchor the various images, while bright whites supply vibrant accents. Costume textures show up nicely and pleasingly sharp close-ups showcase Lombard's classic beauty.
Both Fast and Loose and Man of the World are presented in their original, very narrow 1.20:1 aspect ratio, which was a carryover from the silent days. By the time production began on No Man of Her Own, the standardized "Academy" ratio of 1.37:1 had been adopted, and that's how the film is presented here. It's great to see all three Lombard movies in their original form and that the elements still exist to make the authentic presentation possible.
Because of the advanced age of all of these films, image anomalies plague all three transfers, but I can't imagine any of these almost 90-year-old motion pictures looking any better than they do here. Once again, Kino has done a terrific job bringing high-quality transfers of rare classic films to Blu-ray, and they reverently honor Lombard here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono tracks supply surprisingly clear, well-modulated sound. Early talkies usually suffer from shrill, tinny, uneven audio due to primitive recording equipment and inconvenient microphone placement, but that's rarely an issue in any of these transfers. Fast and Loose has a few moments when the audio sounds slightly hollow or one of the actors seems to be a bit too far from the mic, but Man of the World and No Man of Her Own are free of such issues.
All three movies were made before music scores became a standard film element, so the only music we hear is incidental. The tone is predictably thin, but fidelity is fine and distortion is absent. All the dialogue is clear and easy to understand, and quite amazingly, the tracks are largely free of the surface noise that usually afflicts such vintage audio. (Though some faint surface noise clings to the No Man of Her Own track, it's really only noticeable during lengthy silences.) Sound isn't a selling point for any of these films, but the smoothness of all three tracks makes the viewing experience much more enjoyable.
Supplements are a bit thin on this set. No original theatrical trailers exist for any of these movies, but the Fast and Loose disc does include a few trailers for other related Kino releases. (The packaging for both A Man of the World and No Man of Her Own advertises trailers as well, but none are included on those discs.)
Both Man of the World and No Man of Her Own contain audio commentaries. Film historian Samm Deighan provides a lively commentary for Man of the World that focuses quite a bit on the contributions of the cast and crew, most notably director Richard Wallace, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, cinematographer Victor Milner, actor William Powell, and, of course, Lombard. She also discusses the Powell-Lombard relationship on screen and off, their brief marriage, how the film fits into pre-Code Hollywood, the significance of the film's Parisian setting, and the anomaly of the downbeat ending. Deighan's commentaries are always well-spoken, interesting, and informative, and this one is no exception.
Film critic Nick Pinkerton supplies the No Man of Her Own commentary, which covers topics other than Gable and Lombard. In addition to plot analysis and bios of almost every member of the cast and crew, Pinkerton provides a detailed chronicle of the film's production, discusses pre-Code Hollywood, and examines the wheeling and dealing between studios that was a defining element of the Golden Age. Pinkerton's commentary is a bit drier than Deighan's, but includes good information and is worth a listen if you have the time.
Almost 80 years after her untimely death, Carole Lombard remains a beloved, luminous cinema icon, and Carole Lombard Collection I honors the actress with a trio of early pre-Code films that celebrate her talent and beauty before she became a major star. Fast and Loose and Man of the World (in which she appears opposite her future first husband William Powell) showcase the up-and-coming Lombard to terrific advantage, but it's No Man of Her Own, the film that introduced her to second husband Clark Gable, that's the real draw here. Pleasing transfers and solid audio shave some of the years off these vintage movies that may not be well known, but still provide great entertainment. This set is a treat for collectors and reminds us of everything we love about the forever lovely, always captivating Carole Lombard. Recommended.